In 1967, Clinical Psychiatrist, Martin Seligman and various associates conducted a horrific but informative series of studies (1).’ In Seligman’s experiments three groups of dogs were put into cages with electrified floors. The first group of dogs was given a door to escape the torture. The second group of dogs was given a lever to push to end their anguish. The third group of dogs was connected to the second group of dogs so that when a dog in the second group pushed his lever, it ended the suffering of a dog in the third group.
In the next phase of the experiment, dogs from all three groups were all given a door thru which they could escape the electrocution. Dogs from both the first and second groups gladly excused themselves from their electrified cages, but in the third group, the overwhelming majority of dogs just lay down and gave up.
Over the years related studies have been conducted with humans (minus the torture). In one experiment two groups of babies are placed in cribs with mobiles. The babies in the first group are given a pillow with a switch that turns the mobile on and off. The second group has no control switch and can just observe the mobile. After a period of time, the babies in group two are given the pillow with the switch, but the majority of them never use it (2).
While somewhat offensive in terms of animal abuse, the above studies illustrate a psychological phenomenon known as “learned helplessness.” People and animals who have learned they have no control over the circumstances in their lives ultimately resign themselves to their situation and fail to act even when a positive opportunity for change presents itself. While leaned helplessness is pronounced in victims of abuse and persons suffering from clinical depression, one could argue that the wider culture is condemned by the same inability to escape proverbial cages of torture.
From birth, we are programmed to be good little conformists. Little girls are dressed in pink and play with little ponies while boys are cloaked in blue and play with fatigue-donning boy dolls and toy guns. But our sexual identities are just the tip of the systemic conformist iceberg. The external world bombards the developing brain in a continuous drone of commercialism telling us, “Stuff is the answer to all your questions,” “Money equals status and individual worth,” and most importantly, “You can’t beat the system.”
As we mature, “good” boys and girls go to school, then college, and then join the salaried workforce, becoming efficient cogs in the economic machine. Maybe the culture demands church attendance and allegiance to a male god in some distant heavenly place. Maybe “good” girls submit to masculine authority, don’t have sex outside of marriage and certainly don’t enjoy it. Maybe everyone above hates their jobs, hates going to church and feels utterly defeated. But the establishment of the status quo has defined the narrow boundaries in which they conform to such an extent that they become incapable of realizing other definitions of reality exist and are equally, if not more valid. The door to escape looms large, but they are lying on the floor in a heap of desolation.
The US Conference Board conducts annual surveys on job satisfaction and found in January of 2010, a majority of people in the United States go to work every day to jobs they hate (3). The life of the average American worker is characterized by 8, 10, 12 or more hours of labor. The corner fast food drive thru on the way home from work provides the evening’s repast, and the television, the primary source of entertainment. The next day and the day after that, the cycle repeats. If lucky, the worker might get a day or two on the weekend to have some semblance of spending time the way he truly wants to. Why do people subject themselves to a life in which the vast majority of their time is spent unhappily?
I cannot quit my job because I need to pay the bills.
I cannot quit my job until I find another one.
I cannot quit my job because I need the health insurance.
I am helpless.
The corporate system thrives on our learned helplessness. Corporations are entities where shareholders make money by doing absolutely nothing but investing their money. Nowhere in nature is productivity achieved without an input of energy, but shareholders expect this miracle nonetheless, and corporate law explicitly states that the corporation is legally bound to deliver. The only way profits can be delivered to non-working elites is if shareholders can reap the rewards from somebody else’s labor. So Americans go to work every day, convinced they have no other options and wealthy shareholders don’t have to work like the rest of us. Corporate entities require our complicity in their abuse of our labor. If we felt we had any other choices why would we submit to such insanity?
In Seligman’s experiments, a ray of hope exists. Defeated and tortured though they are, in the final analysis almost one third of the dogs in the third group eventually learn to escape their prison of horror, and unhappy American workers have options too. Many heretics of the American Dream are already enjoying lives in the infinite unbarred wilderness on small family farms, as writers and artists and in creative small businesses.
The opportunities outside our collective corporate cages are infinite if only we can muster up the courage to look at a world without bars.
1- Seligman, M.E.P., and Maier, S.F. (1967). Failure to Escape Traumatic Shock, Journal of Experimental Psychology, 74, 1-9.
2- Watson, J., and Ramey, C. (1969). Reactions to Response-Contingent Stimulation in Early Infancy, paper presented at the Society for Research in Child Development, Santa Monica, CA.
3- The Conference Board, US Job Satisfaction at Lowest Levels in Two Decades on the World Wide Web at http://www.conference-board.org/press/pressdetail.cfm?pressid=3820